Last week Slashdot had a post that was right up our alley: “Building the case for telecommuting.” At VSee, we are building a video collaboration tool that allows telecommuters and distributed teams to work together as though face-to-face. We are also practicing telecommuters (almost everyone works from home) and regular users of our own product. With 25+ people spread across the U.S. East and West Coast, Europe, and Singapore, these are some things we’ve learned about keeping our remote team connected over the years:
Using the Right Mode of Communication
Email, micro-blogging, IM, IRC (text-based chat cafe for programmers), video – we’ve tried them all 🙂 There isn’t a one size fits all. The modes vary in how asynchronous they are (email: asynchronous, video/IM: synchronous), how “lightweight” they feel (video: heavy, IM: light) and how much human communication bandwidth they offer (video: high, IM: low). Knowing when to switch from one to another and not getting stuck in a sub-optimal mode of communication is key. We’ve developed a sense for when an email thread or IM conversation has grown past its usefulness, and when we need to switch to VSee (video). Used appropriately, video can really reduce conflict, promote understanding, and speed up decisions. We usually don’t start a conversation right off on video, but on IM.
Using the Right Tools
Because telecommuting is still in its early days, we’ve often adopted tools which weren’t quite designed for the “remote work” use case. For example, we’ve found that with Skype, one can’t have both video and screen-sharing at the same time. Furthermore, the screen-sharing quality is just not good enough for doing real work i.e. looking at code together. With WebEx, the video quality is again poor. Also, the UX is optimized for webinars/presentations, not group collaboration. VSee is our (ongoing) attempt to solve many of the problems w’eve encountered and to package group video and app- or screen-sharing in a UI that’s easy to use throughout a telecommuter’s work day. It’s a free program, so please try it out. We would love to get your feedback on how to make it work even better in the trenches.
Establishing Team Routines
It’s easy to get out of sync when relying purely on as-needed communication. We’ve found daily standups/huddles on VSee to be indispensable, even though they are brief. There is something about seeing coworker’s faces that makes you feel more connected and human. The way we do it, each team has its own daily huddle, but tech leads will often attend the huddles of other teams. After huddles, people often break out into smaller groups to discuss issues in more detail, all of which happens quite seamlessly on VSee.
Don’t Forget the Importance of Team Bonding
Working remotely is still not the same as working in an office, and it does take a toll on certain aspects of your work and work relationships. For instance, we haven’t fully figured how to allow ambient awareness which refers to the random ideas. conversations, and things overheard while sitting in an open work area, though micro-blogging, IRC and a culture of open sharing helps (i.e. every email list is open to all employees, and everyone is welcome to drop in on other team huddles).
We also do find it invaluable to create a family-like and family-friendly environment, such as getting everyone with their families together for fun activities (snow sports, wake-boarding) twice a year and encouraging team members located close to each other to meet up more often, or simply acknowledging and celebrating important events in people’s lives.
I hope you find VSee’s experiences helpful in building your case for telecommuting. All the best to telecommuters old and new!
What’s a way you or your company have been able to make telecommuting work more smoothly?
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photo credit: markhillary via Flickr